Brexit's Psychological Devastation
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
My world changed in June 2016. Against all expectations, my country voted to leave the EU. Over 46 years, we shared the tasks of building a Europe united in a desire to flourish together. The vote felt devastating, casting me adrift. Gone was my attachment to the family of the EU . It was then I realised how thoroughly the European Union underpinned most of my adult life.
In the day after the vote, those making up the 48.1% who voted remain shared my distress at the decision of the 51.9% to take ourselves out . Leavers held the notion that Britain would prosper better as an independent sovereign state, a place where we made our own laws. No longer would we endure the hurly burly of collective decision making , the quid quo pro required of mutuality.
Over the past three years, the anguish caused by that referendum has exploded, splintering into tribal rage. Resentment of opposing views, racism and other prejudices have been unleashed. On the remain side, fury erupts at those who have ripped apart what feels to us as the security provided by a solid, attentive carer to whom we are reliably attached. In other words, Brexit has created a collective psychic attachment disorder.
John Bowlby, the psychoanalytic theorist, speaks of secure attachment as a necessary condition to enable individuals to develop a positive view of self and a positive view of others. The child who attaches to a parent figure possesses a mental framework capable of sustained interdependence.
At a personal, deeply wounded level, I feel desecrated by my loss of attachment. The sense of my Motherland, the UK, as a strong, stable object to help me withstand life’s vagaries is gone. The country in which I put my trust as an entity to care for me and mine is now telling me that will no longer be the case.
Some psychotherapists liken the feelings of disenfranchisement and powerlessness caused by Brexit as akin to children caught in a divorce. But unless a divorce is particularly harsh, most children still have the protection of at least one parent. Brexit is more like being ripped away from what has been a safe haven - though one undoubtedly flawed - created to sustain our Mother/Fatherland. As the Mother/Fatherland is dislodged from its own secure moorings, it is unable to protect its citizens/children.
Brexit is present in the psychotherapeutic consulting room even when it is not specifically discussed. Millennials are particularly anguished. They had felt securely attached to their identity as Europeans, believing it to be an ongoing relationship . The Brexit result presents a deep fear of being left in limbo, of having their future wiped out.
Families, friends and neighbours have torn themselves apart. It is excruciatingly difficult for people to have conversations about Brexit. Worries steadily pile up as the process of leaving the EU reveals how much harm will be done to our economy. A report commissioned by London Mayor Sadiq Khan posits a no-deal Brexit could cause the UK to lose half a million jobs and nearly £50 million in investment by 2030 as well as impacting supplies of essential goods. A sense of powerlessness and isolation grows ever greater.
There is a sense of futility in fighting Brexit. A widespread feeling prevails that politicians don’t care. And the democratic process we trusted has been subverted. Another struggle involves absorbing th galling, unpalatable truth: a band of the super-wealthy elite, fueled by a narcissistic wish for power and control with futures unlikely to be damaged by Brexit, are winning. They have manouevered, often in a markedly unprincipled way, o gain the upper hand not only over our country but over all of those with few resources to be considered in any kind of decision-making.
It is profoundly painful to witness how democracy has been crippled in the final throes of achieving Brexit. When the guillotine comes down on our attachment to Europe ,we shall find ourselves alone in the dark, unable to alter the course of events.
I recently spoke with Amy Pollard who spent 15 years working in policy and advocacy. She was “absolutely stunned” by the Brexit verdict. “It was so contrary to everything I had been working towards which focused on linking people together globally on the environment and other crucial issues. It seemed as though everyone I had put my hopes in to keep us safe could no longer do so. The body of work I was committed to was invalidated."
Realising Britain no longer wished to be part of the efforts which meant so much to her and defined her relationship to a national 'home 'was devastating. Pride in being part of a crucial British project was stripped away. Despair, confusion, a belief she must find a way to do something to alter events took hold of her.
Sitting awake at night breast-feeding her second child, Amy tried to work through to a resolution. Her head was spinning with relentless thinking. She couldn’t bear the idea of being defeated by Brexit's impact on her work There seemed no way forward , no possible reconciliation . Utterly exhausted but unable to sleep or rest, Amy “flipped into psychosis”.
She recalls the experience vividly “It was very frightening and also very energising. I was gripped by feeling certain I had an answer, and I was no longer anchored to everyday life. It was like a divination, connecting me to a higher power. At the same time, I was terrified.”
Amy was sectioned and spent a week in a ward. At the end of this period, her inner compass had settled. She was able to accept the futility of solving the crisis of Brexit. “Now I see my role as shifting focus to what my own smaller world and our lives are for . I've moved away from policy to existential thinking. The important thing is people coming together and finding common ground so we can tackle enormous issues like climate change. We can strive to create a future which will be bearable."
This re-orientation allows Amy to re-form an attachment to her home country. She believes it was a humbling experience to be so down and an “exquisite opportunity “ to be able to travel temporarily into a dark place. Things became sharper and opened out into a dimension of empathy and humanity.”
Amy may have reached rapprochement for herself, but a great many people have not. Those of us opposing Brexit feel we are being pitched into a dark and fearful unknown, reduced to living on an ineffectual little island. We're sitting ducks for anyone who wants to invade and conquer. Those with power are intent on re-creating the dreams of the past. Our 'carer politicians' are preoccupied with a dream of omnipotence and personal gratification rather than our wellbeing.
We remainers are now flailing children, forced into a situation that tosses us into rootless drift. The question of living with a new reality is not straightforward. Mourning what one didn’t realise one had involves a process of forgetting and then remembering. Something deeply unwanted must be absorbed. Sometimes rage takes over, giving temporary relief. But the adrenaline of attack only compounds the problem.
Venting anger with no attempt to petition for change is of no use. Exploding with rage is futile. There is no one-stop solution. At times like this, a sense of community is crucial. Building neighbourhood alliances and talking with others can help forge ways forward. So too must we find a means to dialogue with those who have become our hated Other for their support of Brexit. We need to create attachments with those determined to grapple with the big issues that matter for our future .
In the spirit of dissent, there is some light. A discernible spirit of can-do is surfacing amongst people of very different ages, cultures, races, and beliefs looking at how they can work towards finding constructive ways to create a new vision for the future. The aim is to be active, not de-activated, overcoming a sense of helplessness.
This thinking motivates Hannah Chamberlain. She has no political loyalties in the wake of the Brexit vote. The Labour Party has not protected against what feels like a devastating severance. She is turning to the idea of a body of people who, whatever their political persuasion, have concerns about the biggest issues affecting our lives and our planet - the environment, war and peace, sharing an identity. Focusing on that, she is trying not to dwell obsessively on vitriolic, divisive responses which set people against one another. “When we are doing something together, optimism is possible and we can spark energy”is how she sees it.
Both Hannah Chamberlain and Amy Pollard have seen how damaging Brexit despair is to the mental health of their generation of millenials. Both have set up mental health initiatives as a way of healing and future-proofing. Hannah is co-founder of Mental Snapp (www.mentalsnapp.com), a video diary app to help individuals actively manage their mental health by recording the things that matter to them.
Amy Pollard, who has a Ph.D from Cambridge University, talks of her initiative as a hub for unlocking the potential of social and collective approaches to mental health. She is Director of the Mental Health Collective (http://www.mentalhealthcollective.org.uk).
When people feel they are falling apart, they often think they are alone. The Mental Health Collective works to find new ways of coming together and forming new attachments.
These new connections will be different to the attachments we felt as part of the EU family. The work of Hannah and Amy is just part of the huge task we remainers face: finding safe haven after the dissolution of those things that bound us to something beyond our own limited borders.